Intel Core i7 3770K £275
23rd Apr 2012 | 16:01
The fastest real-world CPU on the market right now
Introduction and architecture
It's new CPU season at Intel with the launch of the Ivy Bridge family of CPUs and the new Intel Core i7-3770K. It's the quickest of the new breed and therefore likely to be the fastest CPU in the real world.
That's because Intel's exotic six-core processors, like the Intel Core i7 3960X, are really only of interest to a small niche of money-no-object lunatics. They're just not good value.
At the same time, the disappointing performance of the new AMD FX 8150 means AMD doesn't really have anything to keep the Intel Core i7 3770K honest.
Instead, success and failure for the Core i7 3770K will hinge on its ability to convincingly swat aside the chip it replaces, ye olde Intel Core i7 2700K. At first glance, that might not be a trivial job.
For starters, the new Intel Core i7 3770K still has four cores. And it's not clocked any higher than the 2700K. Nor does it have any additional cache memory.
All of which is rather odd when you consider it sports Intel's spangley new 22nm process and thus 3D Tri-gate transistors.
You might think the shrink from 32nm to 22nm would allow for a couple more cores, or some clockspeed.
But apparently not.
What you do get is the latest upgrade for Intel's HD Graphics.
Now known as HD Graphics 4000, it gets an extra four execution units for a grand total of 16 along with Direct X 11 support.
The QuickSync transcode engine gets a bit of a buff, too. It's welcome enough, but it's what we were hoping for.
Then again, maybe the minor revisions Intel has applied to the four cores will release some extra performance. Likewise, even if Intel doesn't fancy ramping up the clockspeeds, there's nothing stopping us from clocking the twangers off those 22nm transistors.
Clockspeed - 3.5GHz (3.9GHz Turbo)
Cores - 4
Threads - 8
Cache - 8MB
Process - 22nm
Socket - Intel LGA 1155
Tick, tock, tick plus?
Before that, let's have a closer look at what makes the Intel Core i7 3770K tick. As it happens, it very much is a Tick rather than a Tock in Intel's Tick-Tock chip development regime.
That means it's a die shrink rather than an all-new architecture. In other words, it's the opposite of the existing Sandy Bridge chips such as the Core i7 2700K.
The 2700K remained a 32nm chip but got an all new design.
The new Intel Core i7 3770K, at least in terms of the CPU side of things, is largely the same design, but based on 22nm technology.
If we're honest, we're pretty bummed out that the use of 22nm technology hasn't allowed for more cores or a higher clockspeed.
After all, Intel's first desktop quad-core processor appeared six years ago. And here we are in 2012, stuck on four cores for mainstream PCs.
So much for Intel's promises of a massively multi-core future.
That said, there's grounds for hoping the Intel Core i7 3770K could be a bit of an overclocking beast.
For starts, you'd have thought lower power leakage from the 22nm 3D Tri-gate transistors would help this chip hit higher clocks than ever before.
What's more, this is a K Series chip, so the multiplier is unlocked and now goes as high as 63. in theory, that allows for clockspeeds up to 6.3GHz.
Intel has also added support for dynamic frequency adjustment from the Windows desktop. That's handy, both for making overclocking easier and for allowing you to set clockspeeds based on application type.
As for the graphics side, even with a third more execution units and a few other tweaks, real gamers will still want to plug in a proper graphics card.
In truth, the new HD Graphics 4000 core is more of interest for laptop PCs that rely on integrated graphics.
On the desktop we'd beg you to buy an add-in board.
With AMD a no show for this contest, it's all about the comparison with the incumbent Intel chips. Representing the old generation is our trusty Core i7 2600K. It's 100MHz slower than the 2700K, but otherwise representative of the state of the art in Sandy Bridge terms.
They're aren't any fireworks in the standard suite of benchmarks at stock frequencies, which is what we were expecting.
That said we had hope those new 22nm transistors would make for a bit of an overclocking beast.
As it is, the 3770K still overclocks really well. It's just no better than the 32nm generation.
Single threaded CPU performance
Multi-threaded CPU performance
CPU encoding performance
CPU graphics performance
Peak power efficiency
When Intel launched the Nehalem generation of Core processors (like the heavyweight Core i7 980X), one of TechRadar's contacts deep inside the world's biggest chip maker told us it was all about fruit picking.
Bear with us.
What he meant was low-hanging fruit – the easy stuff. That meant moving the memory controller on-die and generally moving to a modern, high bandwidth processor architecture.
The result was a much faster processor than the Conroe chips it replaced.
Thing is, you only get the benefit of moving doing things like moving memory controllers on-die once.
So with the second generation Sandy Bridge architecture, it was all about the harder, finer detail work. And a very good job Intel did, too. In truth, the per-core performance of Sandy Bridge was well beyond anything we expected.
And so today we have Ivy Bridge, a die shrink rather than an all-new architecture.
And yet Intel is calling it the third generation Core architecture.
Well, the truth is, this Intel Core i7 770K is barely any faster than existing Sandy Bridge chips like the Core i7 2600K. Given how well optimised Sandy Bridge already is, that's not a surprise.
That said, we had hoped the new 22nm process would enable higher overclocks, much lower power consumption or maybe a bit of both. On this first viewing, it doesn't deliver much of either.
In fact, it's Ivy Bridge's graphics that Intel says justifies the "third generation" label, not the CPU cores. Fair enough, let's have a look.
The Intel Core i7 3770K gets the top HD Graphics 4000 core. With 16 execution units where the old Core i7s had but 12, you're looking at a third more hardware. Each unit has also been made more powerful and given DirectX 11 support.
The result is more performance, as much as 40 per cent more in our tests.
If that sounds impressive – and 40 per cent is a big increase – the problem is the starting point, which was well below what we'd call playable gaming performance. With the Ivy Bridge upgrade Intel has lifted graphics performance to what we'd now describe as barely tolerable.
The reality is that if you are remotely serious about games, you need a proper graphics card.
It's that simple.
As for the revised QuickSync video transcode core, it's roughly 10 per cent faster than before.
Which means it's ridiculously fast when it's working – about five times faster than encoding video on the CPU cores. But just like general purpose processing on AMD and NVIDIA's graphics chips, with limited software support it's always been had to get really excited about QuickSync. Ivy Bridge doesn't change that.
It's hard to imagine any desktop PC user ever needing more performance than the new Intel Core i7 3770K serves up.
On a per-core level, there isn't a faster processor available. And with four cores and eight threads, there's multi-threaded performance to burn.
The new HD Graphics 4000 core is a big step forward, too.
As far as CPU performance, Ivy Bridge represents something of a stalling.
This is still a very fast CPU. It's just not much quicker than the processor it replaces. It's also not dramatically more power efficient and doesn't overclock any better.
Graphics aside, it's not a significant step forward.
A quick chip, but Ivy Bridge is proof that Intel is no longer terribly interested in the desktop PC.